Chicago Theatre Review
A Road to Redemption
Grand Concourse – Steppenwolf Theatre
Shelley begins early every morning at the church soup kitchen cleaning up after the janitors have done their job. She tirelessly sets about chopping mountains of vegetables, loading them into a giant, industrial-size soup caldron, preparing two meals a day for the hundreds of unfortunate, unemployed and homeless living in the Bronx. The woman rules her domain with the iron hand of a four-star general. Besides cooking and cleaning, Shelley directs Oscar, her handyman/jack-of-all-trades and chief cheerleader; objectively copes with and counsels the multitude of down-and-out derelicts and drifters, like Frog, whose survival depends upon the generosity of the Church; chases away the annoying neighborhood kids who taunt and torment her; and now and then manage a few well-meaning volunteers who float in and out of her kitchen. Then Emma shows up one morning and Shelley, Oscar and Frog’s world begins to dramatically change.
Heidi Schreck’s drama, liberally laced with moments of unexpected but welcome comedy, examines the limits to which a person’s faith and ability to forgive will stretch in order to accommodate those around him. Like Catholic activist Dorothy Day, the playwright is asking, “Should we choose who deserves our help? Or should giving be truly generous?” In looking after others, how does one balance one’s own life? This Chicago premier, which had its initial professional staging last year at New York’s Playwrights Horizon, is an absolutely engrossing and entertaining study of the human animal, with all of his strengths and shortcomings laid bare.
Although she no longer wears the habit, Shelley is a Catholic nun who takes her religion and her mission very seriously. She’s a clean fanatic, a micromanager and good cook. Finding it harder and harder to pray any more, Shelley sets the microwave timer as a reminder, helping her work from one minute to two. One day a young college dropout named Emma shows up, telling Shelley that she wants to “give back.” She offers her time as a volunteer in the soup kitchen, willing to do anything under Shelley’s austere guidance and specifications. At first Shelley is skeptical about the blue-haired, 19-year-old’s sincerity, but when Emma proves to be a reliable, hard worker and shows interest in helping clients find counseling and work, the nun believes she’s finally found a stable, trustworthy co-worker. But Emma is at this soup kitchen searching for her own nourishment. Soon, Emma’s effect on everyone causes chaos and unimaginable changes in their lives. Events ultimately provoke Shelley to tell Emma, “Even though I know you were in pain, and that what you did was thoughtless and not actively malicious, I still believe with all my heart that it was evil.”
An accomplished playwright, Heidi Schreck, who is an award-winning actress herself, writes honest, natural dialogue spoken by characters who feel like real people. Steppenwolf ensemble member Yasen Peyankov has directed this production with grace and dignity, skillfully guiding his talented actors toward performances that are truthful, layered and luminous. Scenic designer Joey Wade has created an environment that’s authentic-looking and meticulously detailed. His spotless soup kitchen, with its high work counters, industrial-sized sink, stainless refrigerator, stove and microwave, is watched over by the church’s towering stained glass windows. They serve as sentinels for this life-giving sanctuary, partially obscured by scaffolding and protective tarps, as if, like Shelley, this house of worship is undergoing a spiritual renovation.
The extraordinary Mariann Mayberry is the center of this production as Shelley. Playing the singular grounded, no-nonsense character in this play, who, initially, appears to be completely in charge of her domain, the actress deftly displays a hidden, complicated character. Seemingly even-tempered and unflappable on the surface, Shelley is vulnerable and plagued by personal problems, just like everyone else. Ms. Mayberry strips away Shelley’s confidence, slice by slice, revealing moments when she questions her faith, the validity of caring for the needy and the demands made by her family. And, as Ms. Mayberry learns more about Emma, she begins to doubt whether she even has the ability or passion to help anyone any longer. Mariann Mayberry is the best reason to see this wonderful production.
As Emma, possibly the most demanding role in Ms. Schreck’s play, Steppenwolf newcomer Brittany Uomoleale has the biggest challenge, which she meets with confidence. Emma’s behavior is ever-changing, unreliable and eccentric. Ms. Uomoleale rides this wave of unpredictability with the ease of a seasoned actress possessing years of experience. Likable, attractive and full of spit and vinegar, this actress, whose behavior influences so much of this play, holds her own with everyone on the Steppenwolf stage.
Victor Almanzar, also making his Steppenwolf debut as Oscar, is a talented, spirited actor who capably creates a likable antagonist with his own share of problems. Having a steady girlfriend who doesn’t seem to hold much trust, hoping to finish a junior college degree to improve his career opportunities, Oscar is an affable, hardworking young man with a positive attitude. He does everything in his power to help Shelley keep the soup kitchen running on an even keel. Emma, however, throws a monkey wrench into this smoothly-running machine. She provides a confusing, frustrating obstacle to Oscar’s plans for marriage and a steady life. Mr. Almanzar, with his winning smile and charismatic ways, stands out as the most constant of the characters.
Tim Hopper, recently seen in Steppenwolf’s “Marie Antoinette,” “The Night Alive” and “Russian Transport,” brings a quirky, winsome appeal to his portrayal of Frog. In playing this lovable, burned-out crackpot, the unemployed Frog, always providing comic relief with his strange jokes, has his best moment during an eleventh hour emotional breakdown. Terrified that he can’t become the man Emma has painted, he faces an upcoming job interview with abject fear. It takes Shelley, with Oscar’s assistance, to bring calm to this sad, homeless individual, a role that Mr. Hopper plays so beautifully.
Set on the Bronx street that gives the play its title, Heidi Schreck has created a very honest, often gritty, realistic world peopled by individuals who, like everyone, have their private secrets and personal problems. As the word “concourse” implies, this play is a coming together of a group of people; but, like another definition, it also portrays an avenue from which one can move from one place to another. All of the characters in this drama are changeable, mobile and, as the play progresses, driven to move on. Each character’s boundaries of forgiveness are stretched and challenged. But with renewed understanding, their journey down the road to redemption takes each of them to a new, enlightened place. Fortunate and rewarded is the theatergoer who gets to travel by their side.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 2-August 30 by Steppenwolf Theatre on their downstairs stage, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available through Audience Services at the theatre box office, by calling them at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.